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Movie Review – The Penalty (1920)

This review is part of the A Play of Light and Shadow: Horror in Silent Cinema Series

Movie Review – The Penalty (1920)

The Great War (1914-1918) left countless scars, both apparent and hidden, among the Lost Generation. The conflict slaughtered men on an unprecedented scale. Yet as the weapons technology which dismembered young men had advanced, so too did the medicines used to treat the injured. Whereas gangrene would often finish the work that a bullet or bomb had begun, soldiers now stood a chance of surviving their injuries at the cost of their limbs, their teeth, or even their face. The U.S., which only entered the war after years of fighting had already claimed countless lives in Europe, could count more than 4,000 amputations. At first these returning amputees were viewed as heroes, yet as the costs of long term pensions and welfare assistance began to worry government officials, efforts were put forth to re-enter these so-called “war cripples” into the workforce as quickly as possible. The American Red Cross founded organizations such as the Institute for Crippled and Disabled Men in New York, which worked to get prosthetic limbs for these young men and to get them the necessary job training. For various reasons these efforts were largely unsuccessful, but nevertheless the public could not deny the presence of these disfigured men, and the horrific reminders of that tragic, senselessly violent conflict.

American Red Cross. Future Ship Workers—A One-Armed Welder, 1919. Halftone poster. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (182.01.00)
American Red Cross. Future Ship Workers—A One-Armed Welder, 1919. Library of Congress.

Whereas German Expressionism focused more upon the psychological costs of the war, such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, American post-war cinema, which largely shunned the supernatural and leaned more towards Romantic realism, dealt more directly with the obvious physical costs of the conflict. There is no argument that the actor who most embodied these examinations of physical horror, both figuratively and literally, in the 1920s was Lon Chaney.

1920’s The Penalty is considered Chaney’s breakout role, and it is his first starring one. The plot, based on the 1913 novel of the same name by pulp writer Gouverneur Morris, revolves around a gangster named Blizzard, played by Chaney, who had his legs mistakenly amputated as a young boy and who now seeks revenge on the doctor, Ferris, who performed the surgery and lied to cover the error. This plan of retribution includes corrupting Ferris’s daughter, Barbara, and forcing the doctor to cut off the legs of Barbara’s fiancé, Wilmot, and graft them onto Blizzard. Don’t ever let anyone tell you that silent film plots are boring.

It’s easy to see how Chaney became a star after this role. His dedication and screen presence are incomparable. In order to create the illusion of being a double-amputee, Chaney devised a harness made of buckets and leather, where his knees sat in the buckets and the leather straps pulled his lower legs back. The actor was wiry, and to compensate for the thick legs he padded his chest and arms, making him look like a hulking bruiser. The effect is shockingly realistic and Chaney sells it completely. It was also extremely painful and he could only wear the harness for up to twenty minutes at a time before the pain became unbearable. The studio doctors cautioned him against it but the man was dedicated entirely to his craft, and he would suffer problems with his knee muscles afterward. It would not be the last time he was physically damaged in pursuit of his art, though it can be difficult at times to distinguish fact from Hollywood promotional fiction when it comes to the tortures it is said Chaney endured. The effect, however, is entirely convincing, and Chaney is even able to closely imitate the illustrations by Howard Chandler Christy of Blizzard which were found in the 1913 novel.

The Penalty 1913 illustration.
Illustration by Howard Chandler Christy, from the 1913 novel.

In addition to his impressive illusion, Chaney’s acting is filled with primal aggression. Even as an amputee he is intimidating, a dominant force of nature in every scene. Blizzard’s criminal hideout is filled with pegs, ropes, and various contraptions that allow him to move about independently, and Chaney uses them with the graceful ease of a man who has had to rely on such things for a lifetime. The other actors do a capable job but always pale in comparison when he is in the frame. This is wholly Chaney’s picture.

The Penalty 1920 still
Lon Chaney, force of nature.


The direction here by a talented Wallace Worsley, who had been wounded in the Spanish-American War in 1898 and who would go on to direct Chaney in A Blind Bargain (1922) and The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923), is also quite good and the editing moves the pace along nicely. The film breaks away from the trappings of the stage and uses cut scenes to allow the viewer to be at two places at once. The cinematography and lighting are also beautiful, particularly in a sequence of scenes where a female undercover agent named Rose is searching Blizzard’s secret underground tunnels. The film also pushed the boundaries of acceptability at the time, featuring drug addicts knifing women and a nude model, things which would have not been allowed in the later years of the Hays Code.

The script is, for the most part, quite good, and improves upon the melodrama of the book. A motif of Satan’s fall from grace runs throughout and there are some choice lines uttered by the characters, such as when Blizzard states, as he plays the piano while a girl he wants to kill pushes the instrument’s pedals expertly, “I can murder anything but music.” Chaney’s acting is spotlighted in this scene as he goes from murderous rage to musical euphoria to contemplation and regret. And then there is this great line: “Don’t grieve for me, dear – death interests me.” The plot is often dark and makes one who loves the macabre excited to see where the story is heading.

The Penalty 1920 gif

And that’s when it falls apart. The tension and menacing story that builds for the first 80 minutes is suddenly, well, amputated in favor of a deus ex machina that leads to a sappy redemption story. The last ten minutes are unrealistic, hokey, and sour a lot of what had come before.

There are other elements that do not age well. Modern women will not appreciate Wilmot when he says to Barbara, as he tempts her away from her art, “True women need love, a home, children” – and they will certainly not appreciate the female character who then immediately concedes to marrying such a man. Barbara is a talented artist and both Wilmot and Dr. Ferris treat her as a miscreant for not giving it up to make babies. The more Wilmot was on screen the more I looked forward to seeing his legs sawed off. Blizzard is a villain, but he’s more sympathetic to a modern audience than these chauvinists. And before such criticism is dismissed due to the era in which it was made, it should be remembered that women were highly active in film throughout the 1910s (Mary Pickford co-founded United Artists in 1919) and many female characters were written as being strong and counter to the preceding Victorian mold, being independent and sometimes even saving the men. The Gibson Girls and the New Women were popular models for womanhood, emphasizing independence and education among females. This was also an era when film was more influenced by the sexually egalitarian world of the stage. After WWI, however, this began to change as movie budgets increased and the world of finance – a decidedly male world at that time – became more assertive. I can’t help but see a parallel between Barbara’s artistic impulse being suppressed and the time when women were beginning to be pushed out of the artistic realm of film. There was promise in the role of the undercover female agent, Rose, who at first is fearless and strong-willed before the character inexplicably becomes emotionally driven, swooning as a lovesick mess and bowing to the machismo of Chaney’s Blizzard.

And this is admittedly nitpicky to mention, but we also get an odd “sissy” archetype cameo that has no bearing on the plot. Such an archetype was already well known to audiences of 1920 even though it would not see its heyday until the 1930s. There isn’t much to say here other than that its inclusion solely provides an opportunity for Wilmot to bully one of Barbara’s artistic friends and solidify his alpha-male status. I’m not sure if we’re meant to dislike Wilmot for this or cheer him.

Attention should also be paid to the depiction of the handicapped in this film. Chaney’s Blizzard is clearly capable and self-reliant, but people react with distaste when they first see him as a cripple. In the pre-war novel, such sentiments are magnified and can say a lot about people’s sensibilities at the time, with lines such as, “Some pitied him because he was a cripple; others, upon suddenly discovering that he had no legs, were shocked with a sudden indecent hatred of him,” or “She forgot that he was a cripple, a thing soured and wicked.” Wilmot says of Blizzard that he “isn’t a man. He’s a gutter-dog, a gargoyle, half a man,” and after railing about his criminality goes on to add, “And at that – good God, you might stand it, if he was a whole man! But he isn’t. It’s horrible! He has no legs – and you want to stamp on him till he’s dead.” Such reactions to Blizzard are tempered in the film, though not entirely absent. To Chaney’s credit, though Blizzard is a killer, the actor manages to convey sympathy and understanding to the crime boss’s personal plight and his feelings of inadequacy. One can only imagine how Chaney’s depictions would have affected those veterans just returned from Europe only two years before, and would have “spoke suggestively of the impotent rage of maimed war veterans who were being assimilated back into society in unprecedented numbers” (Skal 65). It would not be the first amputee Chaney would effectively portray, and “although he never appeared in a movie in which his disfigurement was blamed on battle, his physical and mental victimization in story after story clearly struck a chord in this post-war audience” (Haberman 118). His later famous characters would also serve as ghostly reminders of the war, with Quasimodo and The Phantom both resembling the thousands of facially scarred veterans seen by bystanders in the Armistice Parades.

The Penalty 1920 advertisement
Advertisement for The Penalty (1920)

Finally, a few words must be said about Lon Chaney. He is without a doubt one of the greatest actors of all time and any fan of horror should be proud to count him among our disrespected pantheon. He was born to deaf and mute parents and learned from the start the importance of pantomime while cultivating an intense empathy for those who were different, which would no doubt affect the roles he chose and the way he chose to play them. He was considered a premier actor of his day and a pioneer in the field of make-up effects, even writing the 1929 entry for the subject in the Encyclopedia Britannica. He was very private, seldom giving interviews, and stayed out of Hollywood drama, preferring to entertain close friends at his home and spend time with his family. Unfortunately, he would pass away from cancer in 1930, perhaps from a flake of fake snow that lodged into his lungs while filming. Of course, most horror fans will know his son, Lon Chaney, Jr., who would play the title role in The Wolf Man in 1941 and in several sequels after.

Yet do a Google search for the best silent film actors and you’ll be unlikely to find him on a Top Ten” list. When people think of the silent era, they often think of Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp or Buster Keaton’s stone-faced stoicism, men who finely crafted their personas and characters over many years, or a charismatic romantic like Rudolph Valentino. They were geniuses, absolutely, and what they achieved deserves reverence and remembrance. But Chaney took the opposite road, morphing himself into different characters continuously, becoming known as “The Man of a Thousand Faces,” unrecognizable behind makeup that still has the power to shock and awe. Perhaps because of this and his untimely passing at the dawn of “the talky” the general public has largely forgotten him. Of course, being an icon of horror means an artist will rarely receive the recognition they deserve from those outside the genre.

When I saw The Phantom of the Opera for the first time as a young man I was stunned by him, and in The Penalty Chaney gives all indication of the magic he would put to film in the decade to come. The final ten minutes of the film disappoint me, but Chaney never could.

Grade: C+

Works Cited

Haberman, Steve. Silent Screams: The History of the Silent Film. Midnight Marquee Press, 2003.

Skal, David J. The Monster Show: A Cultural History of Horror. Faber and Faber, Inc., 1993.

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Movie Review – 13 Demons (2016)

Movie Review – 13 Demons (2016)

Do you enjoy playing board games with friends? Do you frequent Ren Faires wearing garb? Was or is Dungeons & Dragons a source of fond memories for you? If you can’t answer “yes” to at least two of these questions, 2016’s 13 Demons is not the film for you.

The low-budget film revolves around three geeky slackers who come into possession of an old board game which had been banned years ago, as it was believed to have contributed to a string of odd murders. The film cuts between the trio getting high and playing the game, to losing themselves within the game’s narrative, while also showing two of them later on being interrogated by police, covered in blood and believing themselves to be Golden Paladins on a mission to slay demons.

The plot of a board game connected to strange deaths conjures the memory of the hysteria surrounding D&D in early 1980s, exemplified in the strange made-for-TV movie Mazes and Monsters (1982), starring Tom Hanks in one of his earliest film roles. That film depicts a college student who loses touch with reality while playing an RPG, and generally suggests that people are compelled to play such games due to an unfulfillment of deep psychological needs. It was based on a fictionalized adaptation of the disappearance of James Dallas Egbert III, a college student who disappeared and subsequently committed suicide, but whose motivations were inaccurately reported in the media as being linked to playing D&D. The 1988 murder of Lieth Peter Von Stein by his step-son also had true crime adaptations written and filmed about it which tried to link D&D to the crime. Let us not forget as well the many Christian groups who have linked the RPG to devil worship and witchcraft, especially during the years of the Satanic Panic.

13 Demons was no doubt inspired at least in part by D&D’s reputation during that time, though in a far more superficial sense than what I detailed above. It’s a film with an intriguing premise, however, as a piece of entertainment it barely misses being a critical failure. The fantasy scenes are distractingly unconvincing, with poor demon makeup, bad choreography, and an epilepsy-inducing amount of flashing lights. The film builds to a third act and botches the roll, ending the film abruptly after an unintentionally comical exchange of two characters repeatedly yelling back and forth at each other, “It’s a game!” “It’s not a game!”

13 Demons is not a good film, but I’m not writing a review of it to shit on it. The thing is, I can answer “yes” to all of the questions I posed before, and the film is written for and about a very particular geek demographic of which I am a part. These are characters I recognize as I drink beers and play board games into the night with friends (I even host a charity gaming marathon at my home in the summer), or take my kids to the Ren Faire, or look back fondly at those high school and college nights playing tabletop RPGs and, even now, crave an opportunity to try out D&D 5th Edition. My friends and I are more well-adjusted adults than the film’s central characters, but I feel I understand what the filmmaker was going for even if it doesn’t reach a modicum of the premise’s potential.

That being said, there were aspects I rather enjoyed. The gradual transformation of the characters is fairly well done, and I liked the scenes where their voices change and the game pieces move of their own accord. The game’s text, read aloud by the characters, is actually decently written and engaging. The score, of both contemporary and medieval-style music, was excellent. In terms of gaming as a central premise, I think it understands the early 1980’s fantasy games better than 2016’s Beyond the Gates understood the VHS board games it sought to emulate. Had certain aspects been better handled, the film would have been something which I would be more compelled to recommend. For instance, I feel it would have been better if more mystery was left as to what was going on, if it played more with perceptions and ambiguity while upping the violence to effectively portray these characters’ acts. In short, there’s potential that’s been discovered here but that’s gone unmined.

Would I recommend 13 Demons to another fantasy-gaming geek? Not really. It’s not a successful film but I can’t bring myself to fully dislike it. If you recognize yourself in anything I’ve described, you may want to check it out. But if you’ve never even heard the name Gary Gygax, you are not the audience for this film.

Grade: D

Movie Review – Them! (1954)

Movie Review – Them! (1954)

On August 2, 1939, Albert Einstein wrote a letter to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt that determined the course of history. In it, he urged the president to begin continuous dialogue with American scientists who were surmising

that it may be possible to set up a nuclear chain reaction in a large mass of uranium, by which vast amounts of power and large quantities of new radium-like elements would be generated. Now it appears almost certain that this could be achieved in the immediate future. This new phenomenon would also lead to the construction of bombs, and it is conceivable – though much less certain – that extremely powerful bombs of this type may thus be constructed.

Einstein was prompted to write this letter after Nazi Germany, which had recently taken over Czechoslovakia, had stopped the sale of uranium from that country, indicating that they, too, were working towards the creation of a nuclear bomb.

Roosevelt heeded Einstein’s warning and ordered the creation of the top secret Manhattan Project, which was tasked with producing these nuclear weapons. He appointed J. Robert Oppenheimer, theoretical physicist and the director of the Los Alamos Laboratory, with the task of putting the weapons together. On July 16, 1945, the first atom bomb test, codenamed Trinity, successfully detonated at the Alamogordo Bombing and Gunnery Range in New Mexico. Upon witnessing the terrifying explosion, Oppenheimer would later explain that he had a foreboding Hindu verse going through his mind: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” By this time the Nazis had surrendered, but Imperial Japan, driven by the samurai code, held steadfast in its refusal to admit defeat. President Truman gave the orders to use the deadly new technology on the cities of Hiroshima, on August 6, and Nagasaki, on August 9. Conservative estimates of the number of killed and wounded in the two attacks are placed at around 225,000, nearly half of these from the after-effects of the bomb, including radiation sickness caused by cellular degradation.

Trinity test fireball 1945
Trinity test, 1945.

These terrifying bombs would be at the forefront of the minds of Americans thereafter, moreso beginning in 1946 with the increasing tensions between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. A 1946 article in Life about the Bikini Island test detonations declared that the “atom bomb test will determine the future of man, animals, birds, fish, plants and microorganisms” (1 July, pp. 41). In other words, mankind now had the capability to destroy all life on Earth. In 1949 the Soviet Union successfully detonated its first atomic bomb, officially entering the growing club of potential planet-killers.

Nagasaki mushroom cloud
Nagasaki mushroom cloud, 1945.

In 1952 the United States would up the stakes by detonating its first hydrogen bomb, and in 1954 would detonate its highest yield bomb ever, the 15 megaton Castle Bravo, the equivalent of 15 million tons of TNT (Little Boy, the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, was only around 17 kilotons). I had the pleasure of knowing a man who was present at this moment in history. He was a sailor in the U.S. navy when he witnessed the explosion, and he recalled how the winds had unexpectedly shifted, sending radioactive fallout over the American ships. He spent several days below decks while the surface was scrubbed. Even so, many sailors later contracted cancer. A Japanese fishing boat, Daigo Fukuryū Maru, also came in contact with the fallout, causing the crew to experience acute signs of radiation sickness, reigniting sensitive memories of the use of American nuclear power against the people of Japan.

Certainly, the atomic bomb attacks were a trauma with which the Japanese were still coming to terms. In 1954, the same year as Castle Bravo, the Japanese released Gojra upon theater-going audiences. Awoken by American hydrogen bomb testing, Godzilla wreaks havoc upon Tokyo, the destroyed buildings and melted steel left in its wake immediately reminiscent of the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and even the very thorough American firebombings of Tokyo.

There is no defense against such powerful, indiscriminate weapons, and considering the potential destruction these weapons could unleash it’s no wonder that they were at the vanguard of people’s fears. One way to cope with such anxiety is to give it shape – to make it into a monster which can be defeated by conventional means. Cultural historian David J. Skal writes of monsters in the nuclear age:

Audiences after the war were still interested in monsters, but the suave Mephisto in the black cape was no longer a compelling image for the modern moviegoer. Dracula’s threat of a quaint venous invasion was tired indeed when compared to the overwhelming border violations the world had so recently witnessed. An enveloping cloak was no longer an image of dread. But a mushroom cloud was. The threat of mass destruction was bigger than ever in America’s mind, and so were its monsters… Fifties monsters personified the Bomb as well as the Cold War itself. (Skal 247-248)

Once again in 1954 Americans were looking to cinema to give their fears shape. One of the earliest examples of the “nuclear monster” films, and the first “big bug” picture, was Them! (1954), directed by Gordon Douglas from a story by George Worthing Yates. Produced by Warner Bros. Pictures, it was originally conceived as a 3D color film but the budget was cut and the film was photographed in the traditional black and white. With crisp cinematography and dynamic camera movements, Them! tells a tale of mutated ants grown to gigantic proportions in New Mexico – an unintended consequence of the 1945 Trinity test. The ants spread around the country while a team of professionals, including State Police Sergeant Ben Peterson, FBI Agent Robert Graham, and a father-daughter team of myrmecologists, Dr. Harold Medford and Dr. Patricia Medford, try to hunt them down before it’s too late.

Them! 1954 still2

Them! is perhaps one of the clearest examples of American cinema coping with nuclear anxieties in the thick of tensions with the Soviet Union. As one reporter asks, “Has the Cold War gotten hot?” Or take, for example, this ominous exchange, the final lines of the film:

Robert Graham: Pat, if these monsters got started as a result of the first atomic bomb in 1945, what about all the others that have been exploded since then?
Dr. Patricia Medford: I don’t know.
Dr. Harold Medford: Nobody knows, Robert. When Man entered the atomic age, he opened a door into a new world. What we’ll eventually find in that new world, nobody can predict.

In the Fifties, it was no longer the figure in the dark that struck terror in people’s hearts, but the blinding flash and what would follow. The nuclear bomb was a Pandora’s box of deadly possibilities, and what it meant for humanity’s survival no one could say with certainty.

The giant ants also bring to the surface another consistent source of anxiety, one certainly suggested in H.G. Wells’s more intimate The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896) but shown here more vividly and with further reaching consequences. It is the “fear that other creatures may usurp the place of man or threaten to destroy what we think of as human civilization… creatures of the animal world which we tread underfoot or exploit for our benefit may be able to rise against us,” in this case, “as a result of some unexpected mutations” (Prawer 52). Them! is perhaps one of the first prime examples of this fear being presented in a horror film, and it would certainly be followed by classics of both the horror and science-fiction genres, such as Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963) and Planet of the Apes (1968).

Them! 1954 still1

I had first seen Them! as a teenager, and at the time I didn’t know what to expect from a Fifties monster film. My exposure to the era and to its cinema was limited, as of course was, as would be expected of my age, my knowledge and perspective. I was underwhelmed and afterward lumped it in with the other giant creature and monster movies I saw over the years from the late Fifties and early Sixties. However, upon revisiting it twenty years later, it is clearly a cut above those imitators. Them! is solidly paced – the first twenty minutes unravel like a procedural crime mystery – with scenes which are beautifully photographed. The ants are obviously large puppets, but though they are not entirely convincing, they’re never poor enough to distract from the story, and their memorable high-pitched sounds were created by recording bird-voiced tree frogs mixed in with the calls of a wood thrush, hooded warbler and red-bellied woodpecker.

The script is clever, moving the story along quickly while moving its characters across the country in search of the ants, and it allows us moments of levity. Though the film takes the ant threat seriously, it doesn’t forget to give the characters some humorous moments to shine, such as when Police Sgt. Peterson is trying to teach a frustrated Dr. Medford how to properly use the military radio.

The cast does wonders to help the material and bring their well-drawn characters to life, particularly James Whitmore as Sgt. Peterson, who is instantly warm and likable, and Edmund Gwenn as Dr. Medford, who most would recognize as Kris Kringle from Miracle on 34th Street (1947). Gwenn’s voice holds the audience, and manages to make even the most rudimentary of exposition captivating. James Arness, who had played the “walking carrot” in The Thing From Another World (1951), is also fitting as the square-jawed FBI agent. Joan Weldon is Dr. Pat Medford, and fortunately we get an intelligent, headstrong female who stands up to the men when they underestimate her resolve or abilities – refreshing for an era in which women were pressured to remain at home and find fulfillment in domestic duties. And while I mention the cast, it would be a violation of my Trekker prime directive to not mention the small cameo by Leonard Nimoy.

There isn’t a great deal to criticize about this film, though a few aspects left me scratching my head or rubbed my sensibilities the wrong way. It’s never explained why a State Police Sergeant is able to join up with Federal investigators, order around a general, or carry a fully loaded machine gun in his squad car. Also, there’s a comfort with, and practically an endorsement of, casual government overreach, such as keeping an innocent man in a mental ward just to keep him quiet or declaring martial law in the name of public safety where it likely isn’t warranted. The script displays little trust in the abilities or intelligence of average citizens, and it appears to embrace an excessive control over the people by a Big Brother-like state when difficulties arise. (Though it’s perhaps interesting to note that the characters must continually enter mental wards to gather legitimate intelligence to help them in their search.) By the end of Fifties and into the Sixties such confidence in authority would have largely disappeared, for instance in The Blob (1958) where teenagers try in vain to convince a distrustful adult authority that danger exists, and average citizens are required to gather and assist the police and military to overcome the threat rather than stay in doors under curfew.

Them! 1954 still3

Them! surprised me, as it surprised audiences at the time. It’s a B-movie concept with an A-movie treatment, and it still holds up. The thought of a film about giant ants was as laughable in 1954 as it is today, but it won audiences over. A New York Times review entitled “Warner Brothers Chiller at Paramount” by A. W., published June 17, 1954, reflects the film’s effectiveness and the shadow of the Cold War that loomed over contemporary viewers’ heads. It reads:

EDMUND GWENN’S final, slightly doleful but strictly scientific observation in “Them!” indicates that when man entered the atomic age he opened new worlds and that “nobody can predict” what he will find in them. The Warner Brothers, fearlessly flouting this augury, have come up with one ominous view of a terrifyingly new world in the thriller that was exposed at the Paramount yesterday, and it is definitely a chiller.

The awesome fact is that the Warner Brothers have planted ants on our planet—giant nine to twelve-footers, with mandibles like the tusks on a mammoth, and keening like all the banshees in a fevered imagination. There’s no point in making for the hills, though. It’s fascinating to watch.

Since it is difficult to assign specific credit, suffice it to say that the combination of three writers, director Gordon Douglas, producer David Weisbart and a cooperative cast have helped make the proceedings tense, absorbing and, surprisingly enough, somewhat convincing. Perhaps it is the film’s unadorned and seemingly factual approach which is its top attribute. At any rate, from the moment James Whitmore, playing a New Mexico State trooper, discovers a six-year old moppet wandering around the desert in a state of shock, to the time when the cause of that mental trauma is traced and destroyed, “Them!” is taut science-fiction.

There are, of course, several unexplained killings before Dr. Gwenn, that eminent entomologist, and his daughter, also a top researcher, whom the Warners specifically term myrmecologists, discover that the destroyers are the formidable formicidae, monstrous mutations resulting from the New Mexico atomic explosions in 1945. The problem, of course, is to destroy the outsized ant colony before the queen ants escape and start propagating their sport species. Well, it appears that a couple of these do get out for a mad mating flight and it is nip and tuck before our scientists, the trooper, James Arness, an F. B. I. man and Army and Air Force contingents wipe out the nest in one of the storm drains beneath Los Angeles.

Edmund Gwenn looks the scientist he is supposed to portray, despite his bumbling, absent-minded manner. His daughter, played by Joan Weldon, is pretty but hardly the academic type, and James Arness, James Whitmore, Onslow Stevens, Fess Parker and Olin Howland (who add a few necessary comic touches) are natural in other leading roles.

The stars, of course, are the horrible hymenoptera. They are enough to make a man welcome the picnic-spoiling variety and give the atomic age back to the Warner Brothers.

Early on in the film, when Dr. Harold Medford has concluded that giant ants are indeed attacking people in the New Mexico desert, he says ominously, looking out into a sandstorm, “We may be witnesses to a Biblical prophecy come true – ‘And there shall be destruction and darkness come upon creation, and the beasts shall reign over the earth.’” In reality, there’s no such prophecy to be found in the Bible, but Them! is a good enough film to make you entertain the idea that such a prediction could actually come to pass.

Works Cited

Prawer, S.S. Caligari’s Children: The Film as Tale of Terror. Da Capo Press, 1980.

Skal, David J. The Monster Show: A Cultural History of Horror. Faber and Faber, Inc., 1993.

Grade: A-

Movie Review – Beyond the Gates (2016)

Movie Review – Beyond the Gates (2016)

As a preteen in the early ‘90s, I was very aware of the phenomena of video board games, which sought to blend the traditional family board game with popular visual media, namely the VHS. Though I didn’t get the chance to play many of the them, their commercials were a constant fixture on my television screen, particularly the game Nightmare (or Atmosfear in Europe), which was released in 1991, wherein hooded Belarusian actor Wenanty Nosul screamed arbitrary rule changes at players.

It’s surprising how long it’s taken for a horror movie to be made about these games, a full quarter-century after their peak. Directed and co-written by Jackson Stewart, 2016’s Beyond the Gates tells of two brothers who come across a mysterious version of one of these games, and supernatural occurrences soon plague them after they begin playing (like a horror version of 1995’s Jumanji). Barbara Crampton plays the game’s insidious video host, and there is plenty of self-aware fun to be had within the script.

Beyond the Gates is well-acted and really tries to create characters that the audience can attach itself to. Overall it’s an enjoyable film, and the retro-inspired synth score and video store setting help invoke an undeniable nostalgia for the Eighties and Nineties.

Nevertheless, there are moments when the viewer can feel the constraints of the budget. The film feels too small for its premise, and one gets the impression that many of the scenes were originally conceived of in a grander scale than the finances would allow. Though there are some good scenes peppered throughout, the film leads the viewer to what is ultimately an underwhelming final act, especially when “beyond the gates” leads to a world of smoke machines and pink and purple lighting… and little else. Also, the film doesn’t feel like it correctly captures its central narrative centerpiece – the board game – especially when on several occasions not all the players are present when the game is being played, or the characters stop and restart their game-play with frustrating frequency. Despite a strong first half, Beyond the Gates plays like so many family nights of Monopoly – it sounds like a great idea, and at first it’s an enjoyable time, but in the end it’s simply not as fun as you imagined it would be.

Grade: C

Horror’s “Worst” Films – Hobgoblins (1988)

This review is part of the Horror’s “Worst” Films: Tasteless Entertainment or Endurance Test? series.

Horror’s “Worst” Films – Hobgoblins (1988)

Rick Sloane, after seeing the popularity of pint-sized creature features like Gremlins (1984), Ghoulies (1984), and Critters (1986), decided to capitalize on the trend by creating 1988’s Hobgoblins. The film gained its certified awfulness after being relentlessly riffed upon on Mystery Science Theater 3000, and show writer Paul Chaplin later reflected,

“Oh, man. You have no idea the torture it was to watch this movie several times in the space of a week. It shoots right to the top of the list of the worst movies we’ve ever done. Speaking personally, the only one I hated as much was probably Overdrawn At The Memory Bank, and even that experience bred a less intense sort of hate, leaving an aftertaste not quite so malignant and foul. On the bright side, there’s potential for a real peace in Northern Ireland for the first time in living memory. At least this movie did nothing to prevent that.”

Hobgoblins attempts, and fails, to be a sex-comedy horror film. There isn’t a funny joke to be found, and it’s the only sex-comedy I’ve come across that makes intercourse look unappealing. The acting is awful, but even if it were good one is unlikely to want to see any of these characters live more than a few seconds after they’re introduced. One dumbfounding scene involves a rake fight in which two guys endlessly strike the handles together. Perhaps even more unnecessary is the musical live performance we get at Club Scum, where the movie stops so we can see an entire song being played.

Hobgoblins 1988 still

Most hilarious of all, however, are the creatures themselves. Sloane has stated that he didn’t see the hobgoblins until just before scheduling was set to begin, and they’re a far cry from the world of Jim Henson. What we get are hand-puppets and plush toys that barely move – if they move at all – and watching the actors fight with them, rolling around on the ground, is a sight to behold. Honestly, it’s the only genuine laugh you’re likely to get out of the film. It’s not high entertainment, but it is a tasteless form of one.

Movie Review – Mosquito (1995)

Movie Review – Mosquito (1995)

“I haven’t held one of these in twenty years,” says Gunnar Hansen, the original Leatherface, playing the role of Earl as he picks up a chainsaw. “Feels good.” It’s just one of many nods to remind you of all the better horror movies that you could be watching instead of 1995’s Mosquito, directed by Gary Jones.

The story, which involves mosquitoes mutating to the size of large dogs after feeding upon the alien carcasses from a crashed spaceship, has enough camp to get connoisseurs of such poorly made films through the run time. It’s the kind of film best viewed with some good-humored friends and drinks. The film has some passable effects and even a few decent moments of horror. Also, we get a shot of a proboscis in an ass cheek. In addition to Hansen’s cutting tool nostalgia the movie has some other callbacks, such as the aliens looking like those from War of the Worlds (1953), or when Parks (Steve Dixon) and Hendricks (Ron Asheton) trade stories about Vietnam while Ray (Tim Lovelace) talks about boy scouts before the mosquitoes attack, which appears intentionally reminiscent of the famous scene in Jaws (1975) between Quint and Hooper and Brody where they trade scar stories.

Unfortunately, the bad acting can’t salvage the poorly written dialogue. While it’s fun to see Hansen, who made some great performance choices in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1973), he’s not much of an actor, and it’s absurd that though he manages to get his hands on a chainsaw it takes several minutes of wielding it to kill just a single mosquito. In the end, his mullet steals the show. However, no actor infuriated more than Ron Asheton, whose performance is incapable of delivering a line naturally. He plays Ranger Hendricks, which I assume is a nod to Jimi Hendrix given his previous career.  Asheton, an incredibly influential guitarist, had formed The Stooges along with Iggy Pop and his brother, drummer Scott Asheton, and bassist Dave Alexander. When his musical career stalled he turned to acting, though he had far less natural talent for it. Sadly, Asheton was found dead in his bed at his home in Ann Arbor, Michigan on January 6, 2009, apparently having died of a heart attack a couple of days earlier. Sonic Youth’s album The Eternal is dedicated to him.

Despite it being a film I cannot recommend, I would honestly love to see a docudrama about the making of this film because of the bizarre episodes that occurred during its production, such as the original special effects artist saying “I’ll be right back, I’m going to get a pack of smokes,” and never coming back, or actress Margaret Gomoll having a camera accidentally dropped on her head while she filmed her nude scene in the tent, or when actor Mike Hard developed a concussion from mosquito puppets repeatedly hitting him in the head. That’s the movie I’d like to see.

Grade: D

Movie Review – The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog (1927)

This review is part of the A Play of Light and Shadow: Horror in Silent Cinema Series

Movie Review – The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog (1927)

The Lodger: A Story of London Fog (1927) is not Alfred Hitchcock’s first film, though it is arguably the first film that could properly be called “Hitchcockian.” Here begins many of the themes that would come to be closely associated with the brilliant director for the rest of his career, particularly the connection between sex and death, lust and homicidal intent, while allowing his penitent for German-style filmmaking to truly shine. It also marks his first film cameo appearance, though his back is turned to the camera, as a newspaper editor talking on the phone (the actor had not shown up that day and Hitchcock improvised).

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The story is an amalgam of two sources: a 1913 novel by Marie Belloc Lowndes based upon the Jack the Ripper serial killings, and a comical stage adaptation of the same novel called “Who Is He?” It tells of a killer known as The Avenger who targets blonde women each Tuesday night. A lovable older couple, the Buntings, with a fair-haired daughter named Daisy, played by June Tripp, takes in a new lodger (Ivor Novello), a young man who they gradually suspect may be the killer and who is growing ever closer to Daisy.

Hitchcock allows the actors, who are all terrific, and the editing, which is also wonderful, do most of the storytelling, leaving little reliance on intertitles. He presents information in interesting ways, such as a news ticker or a telegraph machine. He allows ambiguity to build tension, making even the simplest of the lodger’s actions seem potentially sinister.

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Influence from the German Expressionists is evident in the odd angles, lighting, and shadows. Novello even evokes Count Orlock at times, with his slow movements and long, slender fingers. Novello was a huge star at the time, renowned for his beauty. His immense popularity even necessitated a script change – the original script had the character’s guilt left ambiguous, however, according to Hitchcock, “They wouldn’t let Novello even be considered as a villain.” Indeed, Hitchcock even goes so far as to evoke Christ imagery around Novello during the film’s climax. The actor was also openly and flamboyantly gay, even counting the talented World War I poet Siegfried Sassoon as among his lovers, and a few lines of dialogue in the film suggest that the other characters suspect the same of his. Whether this was accidental or not is difficult to guess, but I am apt to believe that it was Hitchcock’s cinematic equivalent of a wink and a nod.

Hitchcock makes London come alive with point-of-view shots in speeding cars, people walking outside windows in backgrounds, and car headlights sliding across the walls through closed curtains. It all feels lived in and one forgets that the action is taking place on sets. He uses, too, other innovative techniques, such as a transparent ceiling in order to see the lodger pacing in the room above. When he completed the film, the studio was unhappy with the product and hired a young Ivor Montagu to make some changes, which included little more than reducing the number of title cards, adding symbolic triangles to them, and a few minor reshoots. Hitchcock was furious at first but Montagu’s intrusion was slight and Hitchcock ultimately approved of the changes, and what remains is unquestionably Hitchcock’s work.

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The Lodger helped to create the modern thriller and is, in Steve Haberman’s assessment, “the only British horror film of note” (96). The September 16, 1926 issue of the trade journal Bioscope went further, declaring that “it is possible that this film is the finest British production ever made.” Of course, Hitchcock, known as the “Master of Suspense,” would time and again set the standards for filmmaking in the coming decades, most notably in the horror genre with 1960’s masterpiece Psycho and 1963’s The Birds. Born in 1899, Hitchcock struggled his whole life with obesity, yet his signature silhouette, coupled with his gallows humor, made him perhaps one of the most recognizable filmmakers in history.

Works Cited:

Haberman, Steve. Silent Screams: The History of the Silent Film. Midnight Marquee Press, 2003.

Grade: B+

Movie Review – Killers from Space (1954)

Movie Review – Killers from Space (1954)

Billy Wilder was a much loved American filmmaker, writing and directing numerous classics, including Sunset Blvd. (1950), Some Like It Hot (1959), and one of my personal favorites of the romance genre, The Apartment (1960). His brother, W. Lee Wilder… not so much. Which brings us to 1954’s Killers from Space, produced by Lee Wilder’s independent film company, Planet Filmplays, for distribution by RKO Radio Pictures.

Starring Peter “Have you ever seen a grown man naked?” Graves, Killers from Space is a sci-fi/horror most memorable for its goofy looking aliens, whose sole make-up effect consisted of buggy eyes which looked to be made from Ping-Pong balls. In many ways this is a prototypical 1950s drive-in film replete with atomic fears, giant insects and reptiles, naïve scientific notions, and obvious miniature models. Unfortunately, no doubt due to its minuscule budget, the aliens have a penchant for talking… and talking… and talking some more to fill up the run time. Still, it’s got a decent ending.

Killers from Space is a bad movie that’s still a good time if you’re in the right mood and of the right persuasion. Had it been better produced, I suspect it would have gone down on those essential lists of indispensable 1950s sci-fi classics.

Grade: D

Horror’s “Worst” Films – Manos: The Hands of Fate (1966)

This review is part of the Horror’s “Worst” Films: Tasteless Entertainment or Endurance Test? series.

Horror’s “Worst” Films – Manos: The Hands of Fate (1966)

Poor Stirling Silliphant, the Academy Award-winning screenwriter. We thought we had left him behind after his vicarious relationship to 1964’s The Creeping Terror, but the trickster Deities of Terrible Movies were not done with him. While in a Texas coffee shop he happened to bump into local fertilizer salesman and amateur thespian Harold P. Warren, with whom he was friendly. Warren declared to Silliphant that anyone could make a horror movie and went so far as to bet him that in fact he could do so, and he immediately began sketching his ideas on the coffee shop’s napkins. His story, taking some obvious cues from Dracula, involves a family who becomes lost while on vacation and end up at a remote home which houses a nefarious cult. The film was tentatively titled The Lodge of Sins, however, during post-production Warren changed it. The first clue for viewers that what they are about to see is incompetent is the movie’s final title, Manos: The Hands of Fate, which translates with ludicrous redundancy to Hands: The Hands of Fate.

Warren set about gathering his cast from the local theater, including John Reynolds as Torgo and Tom Neyman as The Master, and young women from a local modeling agency to play The Master’s wives. Also prominent is the beautiful Diane Mahree as Margaret. Warren, not surprisingly, cast himself as the film’s hero, Hal. Not having enough money to pay his cast, he instead promised them a share in the profits. Warren’s hand-wound camera could only record 32 seconds at a time and sounds were added, incompetently, during post-production, by only a very few people.

The resulting film is one of the most tedious cinematic experiences of my life. Never have 70 minutes felt so long. Manos abounds with slothful driving sequences (which Warren had intended to use for credits, but never did), frustratingly poor editing (with the clapper visible at one point), and the camera lingering uncomfortably long on actors, who sometimes appear just as frustrated. The plot is largely incoherent, especially as Hal bullies his way into a clearly dangerous situation, and as I write this shortly after seeing the film I’ve already forgotten most of it. The pacing is dull and the experience soporific. I felt that had I been dying while watching it the result would be similar to the effect which mesmerism had on the title character of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” (1845), with me also in a permanent hypnotic state upon the edge of oblivion, unable to leave consciousness, but instead of talking with surrounding physicians I would be forever watching Torgo’s maddeningly twitching face.

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John Reynolds as Torgo

I’d take the fate of the Lament Configuration over this any day. The Beast of Yucca Flats (1961) was a disjointed snooze, but at least it was brightly lit enough to see what was (or wasn’t) happening. Add to this a superfluous scene of two teens making out (one of the models broke her leg so Warren reused her here) and being hassled by the cops, and other shots that are confounding in their unnecessity, and the experience becomes ever more trying. At the least the mind-boggling cat fight between the wives is sort of entertaining.

However, I’ve yet to fully explain the worst aspect of Manos. John Reynolds’s Torgo is one of the most infuriating performances I have ever watched, with his erratic mannerisms and his awkward waddling with cartoonish swollen thighs (he’s supposed to be a satyr, but that never comes across in the film). Reynolds is like a man on drugs – in fact, he is a man on drugs. He was high on LSD while filming, and it shows. The aggravating, stuttering voice-over work doesn’t help matters. As I watched Torgo I couldn’t help but be reminded of a porn VHS tape from the early 80s I somehow once got a hold of when I was young. There was a scene in which the performers were clearly out of their minds with drugs, saying their lines over each other with no rhyme or reason. One of the women forgot all about the set up dialogue and began immediately fellating the delivery guy while he was still trying to remember and deliver his lines in pathetically slurred speech, swaying drunkenly in the doorway. It took him five minutes to realize the sex had already begun. At that pubescent age my libido was on a hair trigger, but even then I could only look on uncomfortably until I finally shook myself from my stupor and hit the fast-forward button. Watching Reynolds struggle through his lines produced a very similar effect.

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Reynolds was ultimately a tragic figure who didn’t live to see the film’s premiere. As Bob Guidry, the Director of Cinematography, once explained: “He killed himself about six months after the movie was finished. John was a troubled kid; he didn’t really get along with his dad, who was an Air Force colonel, and he got into experimenting with LSD. It’s a shame, because he was really a talented young actor.”

Because at rare moments the universe is a just place, the local premiere of Manos: The Hands of Fate was not met with glowing reviews and the film fell largely into obscurity until Mystery Science Theater 3000 resurrected it for their show in 1993. If one is as morbidly curious as I was to see this film, I strongly suggest you do so with the help of the MST3K team, because even if with their remarks this film is still an absolute endurance test.

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